The tournament at gorlan, p.19
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       The Tournament at Gorlan, p.19

           John Flanagan
 
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  Leander sighed happily as he wiped his slightly greasy fingers on the hem of his cloak. “Morgarath would have done better kidnapping Arald’s cook rather than the King,” he said, and several of the others agreed with him.

  Farrel glanced up at him. “Chubb was one of the reasons I nearly didn’t join you,” he said.

  Reluctantly, they rose to their feet, draining the last of their coffee and brushing crumbs off their shirtfronts. Some, like Leander, used their cloaks as napkins.

  The horses responded to their riders’ whistles and calls and trotted into the clearing where the group had stopped to eat. They all spent a few minutes tightening saddle girths, then prepared to mount.

  “Should we break up into three groups again?” Egon asked.

  Crowley considered the question, then shook his head. “We’re close to the border of Gorlan Fief now, so I think we’re better off staying together. But we’ll put out scouts. Halt, you take the point. Stay about half a kilometer ahead of us and keep your eyes peeled for patrols. Farrel, you take the rearguard position. Keep the same distance and make sure nobody comes up behind us without your seeing them.”

  The two Rangers nodded and swung into their respective saddles. Pritchard had watched the exchange, noting Crowley’s decisive response to Egon’s question. He nodded his head quietly. Crowley had the makings of a good leader, he thought. Halt mounted his horse and trotted out to the road, heading northwest. Crowley waited several minutes, then signaled for the others to mount and follow him. Farrel mounted but kept his horse reined in. He’d let the main party get ahead of him for five minutes or so, then take up his position as rearguard.

  They held that position for the rest of the afternoon. On two occasions, Halt sighted small parties of soldiers ahead of them and halted the column until they were out of sight. There was no sign of anyone following them. Farrel had a relatively easy afternoon.

  That night, as they sat around the campfire after dinner—a meal in which several of them bemoaned the lack of turkey pie—Crowley called for their attention. They gathered round as he spread a map of the Kingdom out on the ground before him.

  “We need to start getting our plan together,” he said. “First order of business is to find out where the false Duncan is operating. We’ll set up a base camp here . . .” He indicated a spot some kilometers northwest of Castle Gorlan with the tip of his throwing knife. “Then we’ll all fan out north and northwest to the border and locate him.”

  “Shouldn’t be too hard if he’s continued raiding,” Halt said grimly.

  Crowley looked at him. “True. He certainly doesn’t try to hide his light under a bushel. Once we know where he is, the rest of you will go after him and secure him. Farrel, you’ll be in command.”

  The heavily built Ranger from Redmont nodded. His eyes were scouring the map, as if he might see some sign of the counterfeit prince there. Unconsciously, his hand touched the head of the battleax by his side.

  “In the meantime, Halt and I will make our way to Castle Wildriver and get Duncan away from his captors.”

  “Just two of you?” Egon queried.

  Crowley nodded. “We won’t be using force. We’ll be using stealth. So two will be plenty. On the other hand, the rest of you will be facing an armed company of soldiers. You may have to fight your way out with the phony Duncan, so you’ll need the numbers.”

  “Makes sense,” Egon agreed.

  “The important thing will be timing,” Crowley said, looking round the small group to drive home the point. “If we act too early, word may well get to Morgarath that Duncan is on the loose and his copycat Duncan has been taken. We need to take both men no earlier than two days before the tournament is due to begin.”

  There was a mumble of agreement and understanding from the Rangers.

  “In addition, I want you, Jurgen, and you, Berwick, to cover our back trails once we’ve got Duncan free and the others have captured Tiller. Intercept any messengers coming through from Castle Wildriver or from wherever this character Tiller might be.”

  “Tiller?” Pritchard put in.

  Crowley turned to him. “That’s the name of the false Duncan,” he said, and couldn’t resist adding, “I’m surprised your sources”—he mimicked Pritchard’s tapping his nose—“hadn’t told you that.”

  Pritchard grunted, but said nothing.

  Crowley waited several seconds, to see if there were any questions. Then he clapped his hands together in a gesture of finality. “Right, let’s get some sleep. It’ll be an early start tomorrow.”

  “It’s an early start every day,” Samdash said and several of the Rangers smiled.

  Crowley rolled the map up and stood, dusting the dirt from his trousers. “Who has the first watch?”

  “That’d be me,” said Lewin.

  Crowley looked around the group. “Who’s second?”

  “That’d be you,” Lewin told him, with a hint of good-natured malice.

  “Oh . . . good,” Crowley said. He’d been hoping for a night of uninterrupted sleep.

  “I’ll take it,” Halt said. “You’ve got a lot of thinking to do, and I know how that exhausts you.”

  Crowley smiled beatifically at his friend. “Normally I might take umbrage at that remark,” he said. “But the prospect of six hours’ uninterrupted sleep makes up for a lot of umbrage.”

  29

  “I FOUND HIM,” BERWICK SAID AS HE DISMOUNTED STIFFLY. IT was late afternoon. He’d been riding all day and his muscles ached.

  Crowley and Halt rose from their seats by the fire and walked toward him. Halt took the reins to Berwick’s horse and began to unsaddle the animal, prior to rubbing him down. The horse had been traveling hard. He was streaked with foam and his head hung low.

  Berwick smiled tiredly. “Thanks,” he said. He would have tended to his own horse, but he was glad to relinquish the task to Halt. He stretched, rolling his shoulders to work the kinks out of his back muscles and groaning in pleasure as he did.

  Crowley waited patiently until he had eased the cramps and stiffness. “Where is he?”

  Berwick jerked a thumb toward the northeast. “In a village called Haller’s Rill, a few kilometers this side of the border.”

  They had been scouring the countryside along the border for the past three days. Crowley had led them north to a spot where they could set up a semi-permanent camp. Then he assigned a search area to each man and sent them off find to Tiller and his band. He and Halt had remained in the camp to coordinate the search, and to await word of the impostor’s whereabouts. Half of the Rangers were still out searching. The others had returned with no current news. Samdash and Berrigan had brought word of where Tiller had been in the past two weeks, but he had already moved on from both locations. Berwick was the first to bring a positive location.

  “Haller’s Rill?” Egon asked, joining them as Berwick sank gratefully to the ground beside the fire. “What kind of name is that?”

  Crowley poured Berwick a cup from the ever-present coffeepot and Berwick took a deep draft.

  “A rill is a small run of water,” Crowley said. “Like a stream but smaller. A spring, really.”

  “Why not call it Haller’s Spring then?” Egon wanted to know.

  Crowley shrugged. “I guess they thought Rill sounded prettier—more poetic.”

  Egon sniffed disdainfully and Crowley turned back to Berwick. The other Rangers in camp had moved quietly to join them, forming a semicircle around the fireplace where Berwick sat, reclining against a large log.

  “How many men does he have?” Crowley asked.

  “I counted twenty,” Berwick said. “Three mounted warriors and seventeen foot soldiers.”

  “Then you’ll be outnumbered,” Crowley said, glancing at Farrel. The ax-wielding Ranger would lead the party to capture Tiller. He pushed out his bottom lip in an expression of
unconcern.

  “Not after the first volley,” he said succinctly, and Crowley nodded. Nine Rangers, all expert marksmen, would quickly lower the odds. He and Halt would not be there, of course, and Pritchard had already left them to infiltrate Castle Gorlan, disguised as an old beggar. “The longer I’m there,” Pritchard had said, “the less notice they’ll take of me when the day comes.”

  “How do you plan to take Tiller?” Halt called, from where he was rubbing down Berwick’s horse. The horse nudged him reproachfully as he stopped rubbing and he quickly started again.

  “I think subtlety will be the key,” Farrel replied. “After we’ve shot a volley or two, I’ll point out that his force has been seriously degraded and invite him to come with us. If he refuses, I’ll hit him with my ax.”

  “You have a strange idea of subtlety,” Crowley said, hiding a grin.

  Farrel regarded him, deadpan. “I plan to use the flat of my blade. Not the edge.”

  Crowley nodded. “That’s subtle, in its way,” he said. “Once you’ve got him, you can disarm and scatter the others. I doubt they’ll go back to tell Morgarath what’s happened.”

  “Just to make sure, you can point out that he doesn’t like hearing bad news. He usually kills the bearers,” Halt put in.

  Farrel acknowledged the point. “He does have that reputation.”

  Crowley glanced at the sun, where it was hovering over the trees that ringed their campsite. “The others should be back tonight, or tomorrow morning at the latest. Once we’ve briefed them, you lot can set off for Haller’s Rill. I’ll leave the exact plan to you, Farrel.”

  He knew that Farrel or, indeed, any of the other Rangers, would be capable of producing an effective plan of action once they reached Haller’s Rill. There was no need for Crowley to tell them their business and, besides, they’d have the advantage of seeing the terrain and the situation in which they’d be working.

  Berwick yawned. “Well, if we’re heading out tomorrow, I’ll take the opportunity to get some rest.” He rose from his seat by the fire with a low groan and headed for his small tent. He glanced at his horse and saw that she was rubbed, and brushed and was grinding contentedly away at a small bag full of corn and oats.

  “Thanks again, Halt,” he said. He resisted the urge to check more closely on his horse. The bearded Hibernian would have done a good job looking after her, he knew, and if he checked, he risked insulting his comrade.

  Halt nodded and Berwick crawled into his tent, sighing happily as he rolled himself in his blankets and stretched out on the bed of soft leaves and branches. Dimly, he heard Halt and Crowley discussing the coming day. It seemed they were talking from a long way away.

  “We’d better get moving tomorrow as well,” Halt said. “Time we got a look at this Castle Wildriver.”

  “Any ideas how we might get Duncan out?” Crowley asked.

  “I thought you could go in after him while I surround the castle,” Halt said.

  Crowley suppressed a smile. “Sounds like a good plan,” he said.

  Then Berwick fell asleep and heard no more.

  “So that’s Castle Wildriver,” Halt said.

  They were crouched on a high bluff opposite the castle—a position that was as high as the castle itself and barely fifty meters away. From their position, they could look down upon a small terrace outside what looked like a set of rooms. A sheer drop fell from the terrace to the rocks lining the racing water some twenty meters below.

  The castle was set on an elongated island that separated the fast-flowing river into two halves that rushed around it. The island and the castle were barely thirty meters from the bank below them. The bluff they were on sloped away from the river, adding another twenty meters to the distance that separated them from the castle.

  The narrowness of the channel on their side gave a false sense of accessibility to the castle. At first glance, it appeared that it would be easy to slip across the twenty-meter gap. But the very narrowness of the channel added to the difficulty of the approach. The river was already a fast-running body of water. Where the island split it, the water accelerated considerably. The water running through the twenty-meter gap surged wildly, building up in a smooth hump at the top of the channel where it was first constricted, then racing in a wild maelstrom between the bank and the island. The bank itself was a narrow, rock-strewn path barely two meters wide, soaked by the constant spray the river threw up. There was no footing on which a bridge might be built, and any attempt to swim the channel would result in the swimmer being dragged under by the current and swept far downstream.

  “So, how do you plan to get across?” Crowley asked Halt.

  The Hibernian looked sidelong at him. “I thought I was surrounding the castle while you went in?”

  Crowley shook his head gravely. “Now that I see it, I’ve decided to change our job assignments. You go in and I’ll keep watch.”

  Halt opened his mouth to reply but Crowley laid a hand on his arm to silence him, leaning forward eagerly to scan the terrace opposite them. The door to the inside room had opened and a figure emerged onto the terrace. He was tall and broad shouldered, and moved with the grace of a natural athlete. The lower half of his face was covered by a blond beard but he seemed young, perhaps in his early twenties. He wore a red surcoat over woolen trousers, tucked into knee-high tan leather boots. He walked to the battlements and, placing both hands on the wall, leaned slightly over to study the roaring river far below.

  “It’s Duncan,” Crowley breathed.

  As they watched, two armed men emerged from the door and moved quickly to stand beside the prince, as if worried that he might be contemplating hurling himself over the battlements to the rocks and river below. One of them put a restraining hand on the prince’s arm and tugged him back from the wall. Duncan looked up at him angrily and shrugged the hand aside. He spoke to the man but the roar of fast-running water in the gorge below drowned his words.

  The guard gestured toward the door and Duncan reluctantly went back inside, pausing in the doorway for one final look at the freedom outside his prison. The two guards followed him and shut the door behind them. Faintly, the watchers heard the dull clunk as it closed.

  “So now we know we’re in the right place,” Halt said.

  Crowley nodded eagerly. “All you have to do is get across the river, scale that wall and bring him back with you.”

  Halt turned to him, one eyebrow raised. “All I have to do?” he said. “If it’s as easy as that, perhaps you should take care of it after all.”

  But Crowley was shaking his head before he finished. “Out of the question. I can’t swim.”

  “I’ve seen you swim,” Halt replied, but Crowley was untroubled by the statement. He pointed to the raging water thundering through the gap.

  “I mean I can’t swim in that,” he said.

  “Nobody could swim in that,” Halt pointed out.

  Crowley nodded. “There you are. And besides, I have no head for heights. If I tried to scale that wall, I’d fall for sure.”

  “It’s a sheer wall,” said Halt, who had been studying it. “I’m not sure anyone could scale it.”

  “You’ll find a way. I have confidence in you.”

  “I’m touched,” said Halt.

  Crowley considered the statement. “You’d have to be, to consider climbing that wall.”

  Halt glowered at him. “You’re no great help,” he said.

  Crowley spread his hands in a gesture of humility. “True. But I know you’ll find a way.”

  This time, Halt chose not to reply. He was staring across the gorge to the small terrace, and the door that led to Duncan’s quarters.

  “I’m sure I will,” he muttered, although right then, he had no idea how he might go about it.

  30

  THERE WERE STILL FIVE DAYS BEFORE THE TOURNAMENT WAS set to
begin. Halt and Crowley had three days to wait before they could make the rescue attempt. Between them, they had come up with a plan of action. Crowley sat now, working on an arrow he had taken from his quiver.

  He was binding two small iron rings to the shaft, just behind the warhead, pulling the rawhide thong tight, then fastening it with a quick series of half hitches. He tested the firmness of the binding, saw that the rings were securely held in place, and nodded. The rawhide thong was wet, having been soaked in water for some time before he tied it in place. As it dried out, it would shrink and the binding would become even more secure.

  Halt took the finished product from his hands and turned it round, inspecting it keenly. The rings were set either side of the shaft, at right angles to the razor-sharp warhead.

  “Two rings?” he asked, although he thought he knew the answer.

  “For balance,” Crowley said. “We only need one, but that would throw off the balance of the shaft and make it more difficult to hit the mark.”

  Halt inclined his head. “I could hit it with an hour’s practice,” he said. “And this adds twice the weight.”

  “The extra weight won’t be significant. You’re only shooting over a range of thirty meters or so. Might as well keep the shaft balanced as much as we can.”

  “I suppose so.” Halt watched as Crowley took two more rings and a second length of saturated rawhide and began to make another identical arrow. The redhead sensed his gaze and looked up.

  “Just making a couple of spares. Inconceivable as it might seem, you could miss.”

  Halt grunted. “Remember, you’ll also be shooting one from the top of the bluff to the terrace. Better make three or four spares.”

  Crowley ignored him. As he worked, his companion began to study the coils of rope they had brought with them. Even without seeing the castle, they had known that they would have to cross the river and scale the walls—and those tasks would require plenty of rope. They’d purchased two large coils, and an equal amount of light twine, in a village they had passed on the way to Castle Wildriver. The iron rings came from a smithy in the same village and they had also bought an extra saddle horse—a long-legged young gelding with strength and speed in his lines. Duncan would need a good horse when they escaped. Once they reached the tournament grounds, Arald would supply him with a trained battlehorse.

 
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